Thomas Leslie Iowa State University



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Thomas Leslie
Iowa State University
156 College of Design

Iowa State University


Ames, IA 50010 USA

tleslie@iastate.edu
Capsule/Gantry: Two New Domestic Archetypes in the Architecture of the 1960s.
Alongside the capitulation by establishment architects toward the techno-centric de-humanizing of space and the city by postwar industrialization, a distinct trend emerged in the 1960s which resisted vectors of late-modern capital through parody and conceptual ‘hacking’. These groups’ ironic worship of building and vehicular technology—the more dislocating the better—paralleled a sophisticated recognition of the sublime aspects of new structural and mechanical systems, and their fascination with space hardware of the era reveals an investigation into the changed relationship between our bodies and their containers. In two archetypes from Cape Canaveral—the Capsule and the Gantry—radical architects of the 1960s found fertile ground for new conceptions of architectural space, resulting in propositions that were implosive onto the human body, and explosive into the scale of the city and, indeed, the global reach of telecommunications. In each of these cases, the mechanisms by which anthropomorphic scale was to be sublimated were intensively investigated, leading to documentation of the human body’s seductive irrelevance within a new milieu of infrastructure, services, and media.

The relevance of intensively serviced spatial containers for the human body dates from postwar aerospace developments.1 Transitional aircraft of this era provided only the barest accommodation, subordinating the pilot’s needs to requirements for extreme aerodynamic efficiency. Paired with sensory and physical displacement, the dangerous nature of early hypersonic flight suggested an oddly compelling displacement of the body by technological and mechanical vectors, and the Soviet launch of Gagarin in 1959 had immediate and profound consequences for the capsulation of anthropomorphic space. Whereas science fiction portrayals had previously placed heroic pilots at the controls of their (often winged) ships, new portrayals of astronauts garbed entirely in metallic suits featured them scanning acres of dials, readouts, and switches--indicating the astronaut’s position as a technician, not a pilot. The displacement of the human body by these new scales and velocities became a consistent theme, most provocatively in the 1956 film On the Threshold of Space, in which an Air Force sergeant subjects himself to rigorous testing in the service of space flight.

Less acknowledged but equally compelling was the Capsule’s support system while on the ground, the Gantry. Gantries and service towers containing piped services, elevators, and work platforms constituted the architecture of Cape Canaveral. These structures became the ultimate ‘servant’ spaces, whose purpose disappeared with the successful launch of their charges, and gantries suggested an architecture concerned not with human scales, but rather with those of rocket dynamics, fuelling, and storage 2. These articulations of otherwise silent functions created an aesthetic in contrast to the white and steel of the capsule, and the resulting images continue to provide a peculiar visual pleasure, a Canaveral vernacular that challenges conventional notions of composition and scale. Such a vernacular led to explorations in hyperfunctionalism; the pleasure involved in the performance of overwhelming mechanical tasks paired with the ultra-efficiency of the capsule environment.
Whereas previous advances in transport had challenged architecture on the level of production or aesthetics, the architectural implications of space capsules and gantries presented provocations ranging in scale from the urban to the anthropomorphic. This vision, in which physical space was reduced to a bio-medical minimum and mechanical services grew to be more prominent than the serviced spaces themselves, had immediate effects on architects in Japan and the UK. Two documents frame the propositions of Capsule and Gantry Architecture—Reyner Banham’s 1965 essay “A Home is Not a House”, and Kisho Kurokawa’s 1969 “Capsule Declaration”.3 Banham’s essay was an indictment of primal architectural notions, suggesting that active environmental control had replaced shelter as architecture’s raison d’être. He and Dallegret suggested a ‘standard of living package’ as the core of a new dwelling paradigm, surrounded by pneumatic enclosures, resulting in the ultimate ‘bachelor pads’. Kurokawa’s Declaration took a more techno-centric view, focusing on the capsule as an organizational tool for human activity and a rationalization of domestic production--the result of ‘tools’ and ‘dwellings’ moving toward one another conceptually. In opposition to Banham, Kurokawa failed to recognize the subversive potential of the capsule dwelling. Rather, his capsules operated as filters to keep unwanted information out, while accelerating the influx of information desired. In this scenario, the capsule established the individuality of its dweller in context to the city, and even in the residential milieu, where Kurokawa imagined capsules for each family member creating a domestic nexus by their clustered arrangement. Here we find the capsule’s total evaporation of human tradition, part of the urban growth process that would control and configure the city in the fantasies of the Metabolist group.

No such self-conscious manifesto exists for Gantry Architecture, however another essay by Banham, issued five years prior, provided at least a hidden ‘Gantry Declaration.’ In his 1960 essay “Stocktaking,” Banham suggested the re-definition of architecture as “the provision of fit environments for human activities.”4 This stance noted the possible evaporation of ‘cultural sanction’ in favor of ‘measurable performance,’ such that buildings might be redefined “simply as the integration of a complex of intrapersonal relationships and mains-services.”5 While setting the stage for his prototype capsule of 1965, “Stocktaking” also defined the (yet unnamed) Gantry phenomenon. While structural engineering and architecture had developed a cozy existence in the twentieth century, such assimilation had not yet occurred with services engineers. This situation, Banham felt, led to the potential undermining of traditional ‘architecture’, in that “unorganized hordes” of structural and mechanical specialists might “…flood over into the architects’ preserves and…create an Other Architecture…out of apparent intelligence and the task of creating fit environments for human activities.”6 Banham’s glee at the dismantling of architectural tradition at the hands of engineers is a precise foreshadowing of the influence of NASA’s ‘other architecture’ in the aesthetic culture of the 1960s.


Banham’s influence had a galvanizing effect on the British scene in the1960s. Shortly after “Stocktaking,” the Archigram group began publishing their irregular journal emphasizing the expressive potential for advanced building technology. The capsule was a fundamental element in their ‘wild-eyed’ architectural philosophy, which argued for “…the poetry of countdown, [and] orbital helmets…” over more conventional expressions of building technology.7

Throughout 1964 and 1965, Archigram’s work consisted of experiments using the Capsule/Gantry paradigm, in particular “Amazing Zoom Archigram 4”, which borrowed imagery and layouts from science fiction comic books. Parallel to this celebration of space pods, Cook and Chalk produced a series of “Plug In” projects whose rationale defined the new ideal—a large scale ‘network structure’ of access and servicing that supported units “cater [ing] for all needs.”8 The plug-in projects were based around mechanical and electric service cores, into which pre-fabricated capsules could be inserted via cranes, suggesting a continuous process of regeneration. Whereas the Plug-In City was largely an experiment in creating forms out of Gantries and units, Chalk’s later Capsule Home projects concentrated on the tectonic potential for such a system. Wedge-shaped units consisting of a floor tray, walls with service ducts and interfaces, and a unitary roof were to be clipped together to form a capsule enclosure containing ‘clip-on appliance walls’ and a version of Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion Bathroom.

A more subversive version of the Capsule Homes was executed the following year by Chalk with Ron Herron. The ‘Gasket Homes’, conceived as a buildup of large-scale gasket profiles, suggested a less systematic approach, with the homes themselves based on the layering strategy of the gaskets and services and structure appearing on an ad hoc basis. Further explorations included the 1965 ‘Living-Pod’ project by David Greene, in which a central capsule was supported by adjustable legs, and by ‘attached machines’ that would perform domestic tasks. Bearing a similarity to an actual human organ, the Pod suggested the erotic potential of ‘plugging in’, as its apertures bore a disquieting resemblance to those of the human body.

While these Capsule Homes manifested Banham’s “other architecture” in their trunking of central services, a more sophisticated idea of the Gantry as an enabling device for the delivery of media dominated Archigram’s work in the late 1960s. The expression of electronic infrastructures found its most vocal proponent in Archigram ally Cedric Price, whose 1965 “Fun Palace” proposed a network of circulatory and audio-visual elements that were to be moved and assembled via an overhead crane, a gantry that overwhelmed the content-intensive spaces and components below. Price’s work led to Archigram’s most celebrated project, an “Instant City” of self-deploying electronic media pods and screens, delivered by airship and deposited throughout the unsuspecting landscape. Both the Palace and Instant City realized the beauty of trans-humanly scaled, anonymous and content-free pieces of infrastructural engineering, mobile Gantries unconstrained by ground connections or societal expectations.


If Archigram were fascinated by the imagery of idealized residential technology—“short on theory and long on draftsmanship” as Reyner Banham put it—their parodic stance suggested that capsules could at least have socially and politically charged meaning. The Japanese experiment in capsule and gantry housing, though more practically refined, suggested an engagement with bureaucratic planning and economics. While Archigram saw the capsule as a liberating mechanism and the gantry as an anarchic orator-agitator, the Metabolists saw both models as tools of regimented growth, mechanisms to fix socio-political relationships in a developing framework.

Metabolism as an architectural philosophy emerged at the 1960 World Design Congress in Tokyo alongside its earliest manifestation—Kenzo Tange’s Tokyo Bay Plan. The Plan represented the Metabolist ideal of continual growth and renewal through mechanical processes, with a large infrastructural matrix crossing Tokyo’s harbor connecting re-configurable megastructures. Metabolism proposed a corollary to the Gantry/Capsule model, based not on the pop model of Archigram but rather on a management model disguised as a biological metaphor. Although the movement promoted a link to the processes of the organic world, this was belied by its production, which was as mechanistic as Archigram’s was expressionist.

Contemporary projects by Arata Isozaki and Akira Shibuya emphasized the primacy of Gantry structures. Isozaki’s ‘City in the Sky’ proposed cylindrical cores bridged by trusses containing services, and cantilevered stalks supporting housing units. An explicit gantry/capsule relationship was also suggested by Shibuya’s 1966 “Urban Megastructure”, in which the free forms of Isozaki were replaced by an emphasis on the tower and frame, with capsule offices and dwellings subordinate to the overall structure.9

In 1966, Kurokawa was made part of the design team for EXPO 70 in Osaka, along with Isozaki and Tange. Inspired by the pairing of lightweight construction and electronic technology at the 1967 Montreal Expo, EXPO 70 celebrated the separation of ‘hardware’ and ‘software’, that is, the content of the pavilions and their containers. A re-definition of architecture as a support system for electronic content became a major theme of the grounds.10 Tange’s design contribution, a 300m space frame over a plaza containing theaters and kiosks was according to him not ‘architecture’ in the traditional sense, but rather a massive piece of ‘environmental equipment’ designed to be a ‘neutral…self effacing…invisible’ support structure for the circulation and exhibits within.11 The Space Frame was therefore an urban gantry, a silent service structure whose experiential effects were those of lumbering scale and radically expressive functionalism. Within its long-span structure, the Frame contained exhibits from smaller countries and industries, including Kurokawa’s first built Capsule House, suspended from the Frame’s structural nodes and accessible by bridges similar to the NASA gantry towers. Within the capsule, a series of detachable pods contained bedrooms, bathrooms, and services were arranged around a central living space.12 The result was similar to contemporary space station proposals, yet the interiors of the EXPO 70 capsule were recognizably domestic, with shag carpet lining the walls, floors, and occasionally the ceilings. The scale of the house in comparison to that of the overall Frame was an articulation of the gantry’s ultra-scale, while the confines of the interior suggested the encapsulation of the astronaut and the sensual potential of the existenzminimum space, rendered in shaggy fur as if to emphasize the point.

In 1972, Kurokawa completed a paradoxical Capsule monument, the Nagakin Tower in Tokyo. Designed to provide housing for transient businessmen, the Capsule Tower was conceived as an economic method of supplying housing units, but it was also an opportunity to prove the cultural potential of the Capsule archetype. The building consists of two service towers, each containing a central elevator, staircase and a structural core of concrete. 144 prefabricated units are bolted into these shafts, each built from a steel chassis, and similar to those used in shipping containers. The capsules were hoisted into place by a tower crane, and attached to service runs inside the cores. Within each capsule, a folding bed was located adjacent to a built-in entertainment system at one end. A small office desk and a wall of storage containers were the only other amenities, alongside a Dymaxion-inspired bathroom containing a shower, sink, and toilet, based on precise anthropomorphic data and using sectional volume to accommodate human dimensions.

Contemporary industrial interest in encapsulated dwellings failed to integrate the commercial and conceptual potential of such an idea. While advances were made in ‘open systems’ of construction, in which prefabricated concrete or steel shells created standardized apartment blocks, these experiments followed standard residential typologies, or else resorted to an inarticulate stacking of modular units. Likewise, attempts to supply services components for traditional homes were a technical advance, yet they failed to challenge the traditions of the houses surrounding them. Whereas Kurokawa’s propositions had integrated production, performance, and experience into a new suggestion of domestic space, these attempts merely co-opted traditional notions of dwelling to provide an economic rationale for new elements.

The lack of any emotional charge from these experiments highlights the radical idea behind Kurokawa and Banham’s manifestos—namely that the Capsule, beyond its productional or performance efficiency, suggests an intimacy with the body that is simultaneously terrifying and gratifying. To have one’s biological and spatial needs met by a bare minimum of tubes, wires, and walls is to suggest a mechanical intimacy with one’s body that is neither comforting, nor without erotic suggestion. Likewise, Kurokawa’s claim of “individuality” in his Capsule Manifesto seems to be a suggestion more of privacy—inside the Capsule one can do as one wishes away from political or social eyes.13

Clues to the Capsule’s status as an architectural metaphor occurs in Kurokawa’s description of his 1968 “Discotheque Space Capsule,” where he writes that capsules are “for those who want to release what is pent up inside them” and in Banham’s review of the movie Barbarella, in which he describes the title character’s inflatable, fur-lined spacecraft as a model for housing that would ‘provide everybody with their own habitable bubble of innocence.’ In these remarks, the capsule has been conceived as a defense mechanism, an anxious response in Kurokawa’s case to the danger of releasing one’s id into a strict society, and in Banham’s case to the degrading conditions of the world outside. It is interesting to note that Japan and England had been devastated by aerial bombardment only twenty years before. The Capsule thus took on a sinister tone (the capsules of the attacking aircraft) and a protective one (the refuge of the air raid shelter), and it may be seen simultaneously an escape via Banham’s enviro-bubble to the wilderness, and a hunkering-down in Kurokawa’s case as an urban refuge. In either case, the capsule functions as a prosthetic device and as a sublimation of human needs and desires to a mechanical structure or device. It is thus a fantasy involving our fondest hopes and deepest fears regarding the operations of technology upon our bodies, our social relations, and our culture.

Whereas the Capsule has tended to suppress its anthropomorphic contents by enclosure and separation, the Gantry has operated to sublimate architectural ‘meaning’ through the separation of form from its linguistic potential. This is the essence of the anonymous service structure, whose reason for being lies outside its spatial limits. The expression of such structures and their progeny suggests a replacement of ‘meaning’ by the expression of a raw, archi-technological desire. An elaboration on the Gantry type occurs in the reportage on another structure at Expo 70, the Fuji Group Pavilion. Inspired by multimedia shows at the Montreal Expo, the Fuji pavilion consisted of pneumatic beams arranged to form a circular ground plan with a saddle-shaped section. Within this structure, movie screens loudspeakers and lights showed a multi-media ‘tour’ of the globe. The result, according to critic Martin Pawley, was the evaporation of form in the face of overwhelming sensory stimulation, an ‘absolute redundancy’ of static effect in the face of the virtual world being projected on the beams.14

Here, architecture has imploded upon itself--rather than onto the human form--into an ultra-efficient system of content-enabling mechanisms and surfaces. Beyond the anonymity of the Canaveral Gantries, the Fuji Pavilion suggested an architectural sublimation so total as to weigh practically nothing. Arata Isozaki, writing about his Expo 70 work, described the intent as a ‘soft’ architecture, though this might now be translated as an architecture of minimal hardware supporting the soft content of the Expo. Such an infrastructural approach implies the deference of composition and morality to the whims of an electronic, consumer culture. Like the vaguely terrifying assumptions regarding the human body at work in the Capsule, the EXPO Gantries give us a disturbingly pleasurable glimpse of architecture without cultural moorings, in which technological vectors have displaced our human desires for space, light, &c. If the Capsule represents a technological sublime based on the compression of architecture onto human form, the Gantry represents a similar operation based on the explosion of anthropocentric architecture into the electronic ether, clarifying our ‘place’ in such a network precisely by reducing human elements of architectural form to nothingness. The continued appearance of Capsules and Gantries (e.g. the gantry towers and encapsulated bathrooms in the Lloyd’s building) suggests that for all the test-pilot bravado our culture maintains toward our electronic and infrastructural environments, we have not grown past our ambivalent relationships to the technologies that sustain and connect us.




1 Kisho Kurokawa finds precedent in the traditional kago or sedan chair of imperial Japan.

2 Intriguingly, the original Mercury and Gemini launch pads have largely been left to rot. See Manfred Hamm and Rolf Steinberg, Dead Tech: A Guide to the Archaeology of Tomorrow. (San Francisco: 1982, Sierra Club Books).

3 Reyner Banham, “A Home is Not A House,” Art in America, April 1965. 70-79. Kisho Kurokawa, “Capsule Declaration” in Kisho Kurokawa, Metabolism in Architecture (London: Studio Vista, 1977). 75-86.

4 Reyner Banham, “Stocktaking.” The Architectural Review, February, 1960. 93-100.

5 Ibid. 94.

6 Ibid. 100.

7 David Greene in Peter Cook and Warren Chalk, ed., Archigram. (New York: Praeger, 1973). 8.

8 Peter Cook, “Plug-in City,” in Peter cook and Warren Chalk, ed. op. cit. 39.

9 While the aesthetics of demountable infill elements were approached in later buildings by Tange—the 1966 Yamanashi Communications Center, for example--the actual tectonic propositions of Isozaki and Shibuya were diluted into less articulate reinforced concrete frames and skins, suggesting that the industrial and fabricational economies implied by the Metabolists were in fact chimerical.

10 This owed a debt to Archigram’s vision, exemplified by Kinoru Kikutake’s tower, which replicated Peter Cook’s gantry/geodesic dome proposal for Montreal in 1967.

11 Kenzo Tange and Noboru Kawazoe, “Some Thoughts About EXPO ‘70” Japan Architect, May/June 1970. 31-32.

12 Jamie Horwitz, a colleague at Iowa State, has pointed out that these spaces were divided along gender lines, with cooking and cleaning pods connected to the wife’s quarters.

13 This may be the Capsule’s most obvious legacy, in the development of the capsule hotel type in urban Japan. In these, capsules the size of a single human body serve as the last resort for businessmen rushing to catch the last train. The capsules often provide as their only amenity a single television screen broadcasting pornographic videos, suggesting that the capsules are not merely the functional bodily enclosure suggested by Kurokawa, but actually a filter that keeps out societal elements such as family, social mores, etc. This, of course, is rather a sad counterpart to Banham’s free-wheeling celebration of the lusty potential for inflatable capsules throughout a newly eroticized landscape

14 Martin Pawley, “Architecture Versus the Movies or Form Versus Content: Reports from Osaka.” Architectural Design, (June 1970) 289.


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